Michael Brenner
To speak about American Jewish culture, as one of its most elaborate
critics, Harold Bloom, once remarked, is as problematic as to talk
about the Holy Roman Empire. Just as the latter was neither Holy nor
Roman nor an Empire, much of what is today considered American
Jewish Culture is neither American nor Jewish nor Culture. Culture,
according to Bloom, is a secular concept that began as Roman and
continued as European but has not yet become American, and
certainly not Jewish.1 From the very different perspective of fin-desiècle Germany, Thomas Mann had made a somewhat similar remark,
when he reported to his brother Heinrich after a visit to his future
Jewish father-in-law that ‘[o]ne is not at all reminded of Judaism
among those people; one feels nothing but culture’.2 This clear-cut
division between Judaism and Western culture was confirmed in her
own pointed and perhaps exaggerated way by Hannah Arendt: ‘Jews
who wanted “culture” left Judaism at once, and completely, even
though most of them remained conscious of their Jewish origin.
Secularization and even secular learning became identified
exclusively with secular culture’, says Arendt, ‘so that it never
occurred to these Jews that they could have started a process of
secularization with regard to their own heritage’.3
Arendt’s remarks were meant to describe the acculturation of
German Jews during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century,
German and other Jews did indeed start a process of secularisation
with regard to their own heritage. Hannah Arendt was part of it, just as
Harold Bloom is not merely a critic, but also part of a similar process
that has been visible in the United States for many decades. Whether
we call the fruits of this process ‘culture’ or reject this term as unJewish is not our major concern here. Another question posed by
Harold Bloom seems more relevant in our context: ‘Which of the
great Diaspora Jewries does American Jewry resemble, in its cultural
modes and aims?’4 Bloom himself pointed to Hellenistic Jewry as the
most appropriate model for comparison. From a distance of two
millennia, however, such a comparison must remain quite vague, at
least for the historian, who has to turn to contemporary models
instead. There are basically only two such major models in our
century: Eastern Europe and Germany. Bloom himself vigorously
rejected any analogies between German and American Jewry, using
Gershom Scholem as his chief witness. I wonder, however, how much
such a view is shaped by stereotypes developed in the aftermath of the
Holocaust about Weimar Germany in general and German Jewry in
particular. Just as in the political context Weimar is used
synonymously with the decline of democracy, modern German Jewry
is often regarded as the epitome of craven assimilation. Thus, German
Jews are indirectly blamed for their own fate. They did not want to be
Jews, and therefore – the saying goes – they were punished for their
In contrast to the image of a self-destructive German Jewry, East
European Jewry has had a much better press, and is usually portrayed
as a vital and productive Jewish community. American Jews in search
of their ethnic roots turned to the apparently ‘authentic’ Jewish culture
of the shtetl rather than to modern Western models. Thus, the success
of popular shows and movies, from Fiddler on the Roof to Yentl; thus,
the enthusiastic reception of Irving Howe’s cultural history of East
European Jewish immigrants The World of Our Fathers; and thus, the
spread of Yiddish classes on American university campuses.
It is my contention that, while when it comes to family roots and
fiction topics there certainly are deep connections between East
European Jewry and American Jewish tradition, their modes of
cultural expression hardly bear any resemblance. Instead, despite all
its differences, the Jewish culture of pre-Nazi Germany provides a
better model for the analysis of contemporary American Jewish
culture. While the ‘contributions’ of German Jews to Weimar culture
have been the topic of numerous studies, it has hardly been noticed
that the Jews of Weimar Germany also developed their own particular
Jewish culture. The nineteenth-century definition of Judaism as a
religious denomination no longer reflected the way many Jews of
Weimar Germany came to define their Jewishness – that is,
increasingly in ethnic and cultural rather than exclusively religious
terms. While many German Jews were eager to rediscover their lost
Jewish heritage, very few were ready to retreat from German or
European culture. The result was the invention of a new tradition of
German Jewish culture, in the realms of Jewish scholarship,
education, literature, music, and fine art.
The search for community, which provided a powerful
motivation during the development of modern German Jewish culture,
has been visible in the United States since the late 1960s in many
different ways, such as the Havurah movement in religious worship,
or the strong emphasis on various Jewish ‘causes’, from Israel to
Soviet Jewry, and culminating in the collective commemoration of the
Holocaust. The re-appropriation of knowledge, again a prominent
feature of Weimar Germany’s Jewish culture, was most visible in the
rapid spread of Jewish Studies programmes on American university
campuses. Finally, the search for authentic forms of Judaism can be
observed both in a return to religious practice by Jews of nonOrthodox background and by American Jewish literature turning
inward, as represented, among many others, in the writings of Cynthia
Ozick and her quest for a ‘New Yiddish’.
Before analysing those aspects in more detail, let me begin with
the most obvious parallels in the areas of language and social
integration. East European Jewish culture was – almost exclusively –
produced in its own language, or to be more precise, own languages:
Yiddish and Hebrew. While a small number of Polish or Russian
Jewish writers composed their works in the language of their
surrounding cultures, the vast majority of East European Jews created
a culture that was clearly set apart from the non-Jewish population,
which was unable to read or understand it. A Polish or Russian
intellectual needed a translation in order to read Sholem Aleichem or
to follow the performance of a play by Ansky. In this respect, those
authors were as foreign to their immediate non-Jewish environment as
were Italian or French poets and playwrights.
Obviously, this was not the case for German Jewish writers. A
novel by Lion Feuchtwanger or Joseph Roth, a short story by Kafka,
and a play by Arnold Zweig could well have contained a specific
message to its Jewish audience, an expression here or there that was
not comprehensible to a reader unfamiliar with Jewish traditions. But
any German could read those works of literature, and in fact all of
those authors were widely read by a non-Jewish audience. The same
holds true for present American Jewish literature. It is definitely not a
closed literature, incomprehensible to the non-Jewish public. Novels
by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow may have their special appeal to a
Jewish audience, but they are read by a considerable number of nonJewish Americans. If there is a wall separating authors from their nonJewish colleagues, it is an invisible one, in contrast to the clearly
visible distinction that set East European Jewish writers apart from the
non-Jewish audience.
The difference in language, of course, is only the reflection of
more general differences setting one population group apart from the
other. East European Jews in the early twentieth century were
integrating into their majority societies, but at a much slower pace
than German Jews had done. As long as the tsarist empire existed, its
Jewish subjects were still far removed from the legal equality and
social integration of German Jews. During the Soviet era, Russian
Jews were forced to give up their own traditions, while at the same
time being branded as ethnic Jews in their documents. In Poland, even
those who left tradition behind very often did so in distinctive Jewish
organisations, such as the socialist Bund.
The process of acculturation had begun in Germany much earlier.
What we witness in the Weimar period was a return of those fallen
Jews, who came from rather assimilated houses, where the removal
from Jewish traditions had started three or four generations earlier.
Their fathers and grandfathers had already integrated – or acculturated
– as individuals, as adherents of the German Social Democratic Party
or as Liberals, as part of the urban middle class, as members of sports
and cultural associations. Their children and grandchildren now
founded specific Jewish sports and literary associations and a Jewish
youth movement. In other words, the Jewish culture of Weimar
Germany was to a large degree a culture of ‘post-assimilated’ Jews,
those Jews whose families had undergone a process of assimilation
and whose descendants felt now the need of a reversal of this process.
Again, the parallels with American Jewry are striking. Only a few
American Jews today are part of a continuously existing Jewish
cultural tradition, while most are post-assimilationist Jews, whose
grandparents or great-grandparents left the tallith and teffilin on the
ship that brought them to the Goldene Medine, or sold them after they
arrived. If they themselves still adhered to the old religious traditions,
the next generation usually gave them up. Like German Jews at an
earlier stage, American Jews today are three or four generations
removed from the ghetto. For most of the twentieth century, America
was a real melting pot, and definitely not a place where immigrants
would cherish their ethnic background. Only in the atmosphere of
ethnic revival, in the mood of a general search for roots, did Jews
rediscover their cultural traditions. And rediscovering always means
Both in pre-Nazi Germany and in contemporary America there
was a perception of a revival of Jewish culture. One of the most
distinguished observers of contemporary American Jewish life,
Leonard Fein, opens his much-acclaimed book, Where Are We?
(1988) with the following sentences:
Just a generation or so ago, it was generally assumed that American Jewry
was rapidly approaching its end. Not that there would soon be no more
Jews, but that the vast majority of us would fade away, whether through
active assimilation or, more likely, through indifference and apathy,
leaving behind only a small band of cultists. By now, however, it is
apparent that though all may not be well with America’s Jews, we are
hardly at death’s door. The Jews endure – and more: beyond the
unpredicted persistence of Jewish commitment, there has been a dramatic
resurgence of interest in matters – ideas, interests, ways – Jewish.5
Compare this statement for example with the exclamation of Rosalie
Perles, the widow of the rabbi in then German Koenigsberg and one of
the most active women in German Jewish culture on the eve of WWI.
While rabbis and Jewish community officials had complained for
decades about the decline of Jewish knowledge and culture, Ms.
Perles expressed the new tone that was discernible in public
statements of German Jewish representatives during the first third of
the twentieth century:
Let us imagine that our grandfathers – especially those who had . . . feared
a gradual assimilation into the non-Jewish surroundings – would return to
life and step in front of us. How amazed they would be by the thorough
changes that their descendants underwent! How astonished they would be
that the assimilation, which they had feared so much, did not occur, that
instead exactly the opposite happened! . . . What would our grandfathers
see today? The [Jews of] today proudly display their Judaism, no matter to
which class or occupation they belong. . . . Our grandfathers would not
have had to worry so much, had they seen this future while they were still
There were, of course, more pessimistic voices in pre-Nazi Germany,
predicting the demise of German Jewry, as there are similar voices in
contemporary America. But in both cases, they have become
exceptions rather than the rule, in what constitutes a significant
reversal of only a generation before. As in Weimar Germany, the
construction – or better – the reconstruction of the feeling of
community constitutes the very basis for any expression of Jewish
culture in America. Weimar Germany was conceived as an
anonymous society in which the construction of small and protected
social niches became ever more important. There is no question that
the mostly urban Jewish population of America has developed a
similar self-perception since the late 1960s. Until then, one’s
Jewishness was officially defined as a purely religious matter, and as
such it was a concern of individual belief or unbelief.
In the melting pot of the first half of the twentieth century there
was no room for Jewish ethnicity. Some of the most prominent Jewish
intellectuals even called for the total assimilation of minorities in
general. Thus, as late as 1963 the then editor of the American Jewish
journal Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, wrote in his widely
acclaimed article entitled ‘My Negro Problem – and Ours’:
I think I know why the Jews once wished to survive (though I am less
certain as to why we still do): they not only believed that God had given
them no choice, but they were tied to a memory of past glory and a dream
of imminent redemption. What does the American Negro have that might
correspond to this? His past is a stigma, his color is a stigma, and his vision
of the future is hope of erasing the stigma by making the color irrelevant. I
share this hope, but I cannot see how it will ever be realized unless color
does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means
assimilation, it means – let the brutal word come out – miscegenation.7
To make one’s particularity irrelevant was still the dream for most
American Jews in the early 1960s. Just like German Jews in the
nineteenth century, American Jews until this period defined
themselves usually in terms of religion. They were affiliated with a
synagogue, just as their Protestant or Catholic neighbours in their by
now mainly suburban homes were affiliated with a church. Not so
much from religious need, but rather because this was part of the
expected American suburban behaviour. This held true not only for
the suburban neighbours’ views, but also for the character of the
nation at large. While ethnic diversity was hardly approved in the
1950s, religious diversity was. Moreover, by being Jews qua religion,
they were accepted as full partners, next to Protestants and Catholics
within the Western ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ that formed the
mainstream of American culture. And nothing seemed dearer to the
hearts of American Jews in the 1950s than being accepted as part of
the mainstream American middle class.
Two or three decades later the picture has been reversed. Now,
American Jews are proud of their ethnicity. They wear Magen Davids,
some of them study Yiddish, others call their children Shayne and
Ezra, instead of Sheila and Elliot, they want to be recognised as Jews,
because in a society that stresses ethnic roots they find it
unsatisfactory to be just Americans of the Mosaic persuasion. It has
almost become more important to display one’s Jewishness to the
outside world than to practice it at home. As Edward Shapiro reminds
us, once American Jews, like most European Jews in the nineteenth
century, were Jews at home and human beings in the street – now they
are human beings at home and Jews in the street.8
In Weimar Germany, there had been a quite different – but then
also similar – call for the reformation of an ethnic community,
expressed in the – often volkisch – language of German NeoRomantics. Volkish ideologues and politicians propagated a
Volksgemeinschaft; Protestant theologians and Catholic social
reformers spoke of a new religious community; philosophers
discussed a Philosophie der Gemeinschaft and an artificial
Gesellschaft; and the youth movement gathered around the ideal of a
genuine Gemeinschaft. Opponents of such an idealised sense of
Gemeinschaft, such as the philosopher Helmuth Plessner, seemed like
lonely prophets who had to admit that the quest for community had
become ‘the idol of our time’.9
While Liberal Jews rejected the concept of a Jewish nation, they
too employed ethnic terms, such as Abstammungsgemeinschaft
[community of common descent], to express their belonging to a
Jewish Gemeinschaft. This definition of Gemeinschaft included every
offspring of Jewish parents, regardless of what he believed or how he
acted. When acculturated German Jews, such as Walther Rathenau,
spoke of a Jewish Stamm [descent] (and compared it to the Bavarians
or the Saxonians!) in order to emphasise their Germanness, this
marked a clear departure from the common nineteenth-century Jewish
self-definition in mainly religious terms.
Nowhere was the change of self-definition from a religious to an
ethnic basis more evident than in the very heart of the leading liberal
German Jewish organisation, the Centralverein deutscher
Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (CV). Already on the eve of the First
World War its leader, Eugen Fuchs, had introduced a new element
into the self-definition of liberal German Jews when he emphasised
that they were not only bound by common religion, but by the
consciousness of common descent (Stammesbewußtsein). Fuchs came
to the conclusion that the term Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger
jüdischen Glaubens was in fact outdated: ‘If I could create a new
formula today, I would say, “We are a Centralverein of Jewish
Germans.”’10 What was still cautiously mentioned by Fuchs in 1913
was openly adopted by a generation of younger CV leaders in the
1920s. A decisive step in this direction was the speech delivered by
the CV’s syndic Ludwig Holländer in February 1928. Holländer
rejected the definition of German Jewry in terms of merely religious
denomination. He was not reluctant to express bluntly that it was
Glaubensgemeinschaft. Holländer left no doubt that not religion but
common descent united German Jews.11
The Jewish youth movement was the most visible expression of
this new search for community in the younger generation of German
Jews. In the 1920s around one-third of young German Jews belonged
to one of a broad variety of Jewish youth organisations, ranging from
socialist Zionists to right-wing German nationalists. For all of them,
Jewish issues played a significant role. Largely excluded from the
German youth movement, young Jews became increasingly bound to
Jewishness as the unifying element, even if they adopted the language
and customs of their non-Jewish counterparts. Most of them witnessed
shallow forms of Judaism practised at home, and they rejected this
shallowness as part of the ‘bourgeois spirit’ of their parents. Some
(non-Orthodox) youth organisations consumed only kosher food
during their hiking tours and integrated ‘Jewish’ elements into their
games. Other youth groups performed plays they conceived as Jewish.
In many groups the interest in Jewish matters went deeper. Jewish
youth began to study Hebrew, or organise reading sessions of the new
Buber–Rosenzweig Bible edition, which was the favourite reading
among the Jewish youth.
Certainly, there is no equivalent to this kind of youth culture in
the American context. But the drive for the renewal of community has
been very much present among American Jews, both in the changing
ideology of old-established organisations and in the formation of new
organisational forms. Take, for example, the Havurah movement that
came into existence in 1968, during the high tide of the student
rebellion. Like the youth movement and the adult education
movement in Germany it was born in a period characterised by a deep
generational conflict, a revolt of the son against the father – this time
not in the wake of the First World War and the gemuetlich middleclass shallowness of their parents, but of the Vietnam War and an ever
more materialistic and media-oriented mass-culture. Reading accounts
of the formation of the Havurah movement is strongly reminiscent of
similar accounts of the German Jewish youth movement.
Like the Jewish youth movement in Weimar Germany, the
Havurah movement regarded itself as the product of a long Jewish
tradition (reaching back to the Qumran community of the Essenes),
but was actually either inspired or paralleled by contemporary nonJewish models. When Rabbi Harold Schulweis established the
pioneering Havurah in Encino, California, in 1968, about 100 miles
away the Reverend John A. Crane, minister of the Unitarian Church in
Santa Barbara, introduced a similar programme of extended families
in his church. Like the members of the German Jewish movements,
the typical Havurah members were dissatisfied with the established
Jewish institutions. Their major goal was to ‘provide an alternative
institutional framework for its members to pursue their evolving
Jewish lifestyles’.12
While the driving forces behind the establishment of the Havurah
movement – generational conflict, yearning for community, and quest
for spirituality and engagement – are reminiscent of the Weimar
context, the actual materialisation of new modes of community was
characterised by the needs and circumstances of American Jews alone.
At least, one would think so. As Michael Meyer has pointed out
recently, the first Havurah was actually born in a small Berlin
synagogue in the late 1920s. Many of the forms of Havurah life – its
small size and intimacy, the active role of all its members in the
service, and even the stronger participation of women – can be found
in the Liberale Synagoge Norden, founded in 1923 in Berlin’s
Schönhauser Allee.13
In the 1950s Jewish knowledge was rapidly declining, and it
seemed that only professional Jews, such as rabbis and teachers of
religion, would keep Jewish knowledge alive outside the Orthodox
community. Since the 1960s, however, a reverse process has begun. If
Weimar Germany witnessed a revival of Jewish school education, the
beginnings of systematic Jewish adult education programmes, and a
modest first step in terms of Jewish Studies courses at German
universities, all those developments find their – much stronger –
counterparts in the contemporary American Jewish community. The
Jewish school system, which seemed to be waning in the 1950s, has
experienced an enormous revival in the last couple of decades. This
holds true especially for Orthodox day schools. By the 1980s, there
were over 100,000 students enrolled in over 500 Orthodox Jewish day
schools across the country, and every city with more than 5,000 Jews
has its own day school. There has also been a revival of Jewish adult
education programs similar to those initiated in Germany by Franz
Rosenzweig, some even called ‘Lehrhaus’ after the German model.
But more impressive than any other revival of learning is the
spread of Jewish Studies programmes at American universities. As
late as the 1950s, there had been only two chairs in Jewish Studies:
one in Jewish history at Columbia University held by Salo Baron, and
one in Jewish philosophy at Harvard University, held by Harry
Wolfson. If one wanted to enter the field of Jewish Studies outside
those institutions, one had to attend the courses of the rabbinical
seminaries: the Hebrew Union College for Reform Jews, the Jewish
Theological Seminary for Conservative Jews, and Yeshiva University
for the Orthodox. Since 1948 there has also been a Jewish-sponsored
academic institution with Brandeis University.
The scene changed rapidly so that by 1966 there were already
over 60 full-time positions in Jewish Studies at American universities.
Yet, with less than 1,000 majors in Jewish Studies and about 10,000
students enrolled in all of those courses, the field was still a modest
one, concentrating mainly on the classic areas of rabbinics, Hebrew
language, and Bible Studies. In 1969, the Association of Jewish
Studies was set up to co-ordinate the rapidly growing academic field.
When the Association recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at its
annual Boston conference, there were a few hundred Jewish Studies
professors representing over 300 Jewish Studies programmes.
There are not only more teachers and students of Jewish Studies
today than a generation ago, they are also of a quite different type, as
Professor Robert Alter determined:
The typical earlier pattern among Jewish scholars was an Orthodox
upbringing, including talmudic training in a traditional yeshiva, which the
scholar then carried with him into the Western world of PhDs and
footnoted publications . . . There are still occasional instances of this
pattern among the post-war generation of American Jewish scholars, but it
is far more common to find people who were raised in homes whose Jewish
character ranged from inconsistent to dilute or vestigial, and who at some
early point made a conscious decision to express their Jewishness in a
different way from that of their parents, intently studying Jewish tradition,
mastering its languages, perhaps adopting a personal observance of it in
one fashion or another. Many of these scholars represent, in other words, a
new kind of Jew, distinctly made in America.14
Very often, the connection between Jewish Studies and Jewish
identity is openly revealed. Irving Greenberg, a Jewish historian at
Yeshiva University once made the remark: ‘It has been said that the
British Empire was lost and won on the playing fields of Eton. The
crown of Judaism and Jewishness will be won or lost on the campuses
of America.’15 It is this hope that Jewish education for college kids
will help to keep Judaism alive which has led Jewish philanthropists
to establish chairs, lecture series, and libraries in the field of Jewish
Studies all over the country. Of course, this development has its
critics, who believe that the role of Jewish Studies as a reviving force
of Jewish life will endanger its academic and scholarly purity. They
also argue that not all students of Jewish Studies are Jewish, in fact in
some colleges in the Midwest or Southwest very few are. For those
non-Jewish students, any attempt to implement a positive Jewish
identity by taking university courses must seem awkward at least, and
in many cases even offensive.
The establishment of Jewish Studies chairs and programmes was
followed by a dramatic increase in the quantity of Jewish academic
literature. While in the 1950s or 1960s, the Jewish Publication Society
would be the typical place to publish a scholarly work on Jewish
history or literature, in the 1990s an author would rather turn to the
rich Jewish Studies series of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford University
Press. In the last generation, a flood of Jewish Studies journals, such
as Modern Judaism and Prooftext, Jewish Thought and the revived
Jewish Social Studies have been established and serve as forums in the
ever more specialised sub-fields of Jewish Studies. Outside the purely
academic sphere, the journal Tikkun constituted a more selfconsciously Jewish response to traditional Jewish magazines, such as
Commentary and Midstream.
Let me mention one last example of the growing importance of
what we called earlier the re-appropriation of Jewish knowledge. In
Weimar Germany, Jewish intellectuals and scholars translated the
most important Jewish sources, the Bible and the Talmud, into
German, and made them available to the German public in appealing
editions. Lazarus Goldschmidt, a Lithuanian-born Jew who had
moved to Germany at an early age, translated the Talmud in a goldbound edition published by the Jüdischer Verlag, the Zionist-owned
Jewish publishing house in Berlin. In the 1980s, an even more
appealing and much better-selling Talmud translation came on the
American market. The volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud translation
are not only beautiful and expensive books that garnish one’s library –
they are also intended for real study, and used for this purpose.
Community, knowledge, and authenticity: those were the three
levels of Weimar’s Jewish culture, and all of them are part of
America’s Jewish culture as well. The search for authenticity was
already present in the cultural modes I have introduced so far. One
may mention more specific expressions of this phenomenon, and I
will limit myself to two examples only: the move inward in American
Jewish literature and the spread of Jewish museums.
It is no coincidence that in the 1980s a whole array of novels
appeared portraying and discussing the Orthodox Jewish milieu. In
contrast to earlier literature of this kind, this time it is the older
generation which is being portrayed as assimilationist, while the
younger ones lead a rebellion against their parents in order to stress
their traditionalist outlook. The popularity of plots in an Orthodox
milieu is just one among many motives in a development of American
Jewish fiction over the last two decades that sociologist Sylvia
Fishman has termed a turn inward. American Jewish writers today are
less concerned with the portrayal of Jews as exotic outsiders or
relatively recent insiders in American society than with Jewish
questions per se: Jewish spirituality in a post-Holocaust world; the
relationship between the diaspora and Israel; and the notion of Israel
as a chosen people.16 The interest in intensely Jewish subject matter is
not restricted to relatively little-known authors, but can also be
observed in the return to internal Jewish discussions by the more
famous authors who had once abandoned this style of writing. Thus,
Philip Roth responded to the new affirmation of ethnicity by
producing two novels that explore in detail various different lifestyles
and diaspora–Israel relations: Counterlife (1987) and Operation
Shylock (1993).
Cynthia Ozick is probably the best example to describe the turn
inward among American Jewish writers. She herself has called this
new wave of American Jewish literature ‘liturgical in nature’ and
‘centrally Jewish in its concerns’.17 Ozick’s novels and stories are
inspired by classical Jewish sources, and she herself was once a
student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ozick not only chooses
distinct Jewish sources and topics, she also demands that American
Jewish literature must be distinctive in its linguistic aspects. Such an
American Jewish language is, in her own words, a ‘New Yiddish’. In
‘Envy; or Yiddish in America’ she tells the story of two Yiddish
writers; envy here refers to the misgivings of a talented but little
recognised Yiddish poet toward a popular Yiddish novelist, based on
the image of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Envy may also be understood,
however, as the personal problem and tragedy of the author. In
‘Envy’, as in other stories, Ozick describes the dilemma of a modern
Jewish writer who wants to be part of an old Jewish tradition, but in
fact helps to create a new tradition. Thus, ‘Envy’ also marks the envy
of a writer who has to publish in English and is no longer able to write
in Yiddish, not to speak about Hebrew. Therefore, the call for a ‘New
Yiddish’ is not much more than a desperate cry for a safe identity. It
is, if we return to our first major issue, the basic difference between
East European and German Jewish literature – the one written in
Yiddish and thus kept away from its surroundings, the other written in
the very language of its surroundings. As much as Ozick, reflecting
the new ethnicity of many American Jews, wants to write in a
different language and thereby be part of the East European tradition,
her ‘New Yiddish’ is just another version of American English and
thus resembles earlier searches for authenticity among German Jewish
Take for example Else Lasker-Schüler, the most notable and most
eccentric female German Expressionist poet, who received the
coveted Kleist Prize in 1932, less than a year before her writings were
burnt by German students and she herself was forced into exile. Her
admiration for the biblical ‘Jewish Jews’ – in contrast to what she
conceived as assimilated contemporary German Jews – led to her
direct identification with oriental characters. Projecting herself back
into biblical times, Else Lasker-Schüler associated with the figure of
Joseph, to whom she dedicated two poems in her collection Hebrew
Ballads. She signed her letters as ‘Prince Jussuf of Thebes’, painted
herself in oriental clothes, and constructed her own biography as an
Lasker-Schüler’s identification with the characters of the Hebrew
Bible culminated in her conviction that her language was actually
Hebrew, and not German. When the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg
offered to translate some of Lasker-Schüler’s poems into Hebrew, she
replied angrily: ‘What? But I am writing in Hebrew.’ Greenberg, who
lived in Berlin in 1922 and 1923 remained an admirer of ‘the black
swan of Israel’, as the poet Peter Hille called her. When Greenberg
acclaimed the poet ‘of Judean blood’ (Peter Hille) in the Hebrew
newspaper Davar in 1925, he seemed convinced of her statement.
‘The non-Hebrew reader’, Greenberg wrote about one of her poems,
‘will find original Hebrew in her poem. Living Hebrew of the
twentieth century’.18
A final example of the analogies between German and American
Jewish culture is the spread of Jewish museums. In 1950, there were
only two major Jewish museums in the United States; in the early
1990s the Council of American Jewish Museums (established in 1977)
counted 35 members and associates, and at least a dozen more Jewish
museums not included in this number. The notion of a ‘Jewish
museum’ is a modern one, possible only in a highly secularised Jewish
society. In traditional Jewish societies there was little interest in the
display of ceremonial objects: instead, those objects were first and
foremost to be used in the synagogue or at home. In case they could
no longer be used, their place was the Geniza, the storage room for old
books and ritual objects in the synagogue. Although a certain aesthetic
value has always been attached to those ceremonial objects, it would
never have occurred to Jews in more traditional societies to create
ceremonial objects for the exclusive purpose of public display.
Formerly restricted to their ceremonial uses, the objects on
display now obtain an autonomous function. They are transformed
into non-functional objects whose worth is determined by their
aesthetic attractiveness rather than their ritual value. In search of their
distinct group identity, the visitors to these museums are especially
attracted to everything that seems authentically Jewish – not despite,
but because of the fact that they feel they no longer live authentically.
The objects displayed in the museum become for them the bearers of a
vicarious authenticity, while they themselves believe they could attain
a modicum of this authenticity by associating with them in a public
space, or by placing them in the personal space of their homes.
The emphasis on the aesthetic value of Jewish ceremonial objects
does not necessarily contradict the notion of a revitalisation of Jewish
culture, however. Jewish society in a secular framework longed for
new approaches to guarantee its survival. The public display of
ceremonial objects was one of the answers to the dilemma of modern
Judaism, torn between the cultural ideals of the larger society, and the
determination to express its cultural distinctiveness. In the words of A.
J. Heschel, perhaps the leading American Jewish philosopher in the
post-war period, the main task of the Jewish museum was to seek
‘ways of teaching Jewish values in a visual manner’.19 The Jewish
museum does not have a passive role of art display, it is no longer
dedicated mainly to the preservation of material artefacts. Its major
goals are more practical: to educate, and in addition, to provide a
forum for contemporary Jewish artists, and thus guarantee future
artistic Jewish creativity. New York’s Jewish Museum, the most
important such institution, certainly tried to fulfil this role. Recent
exhibitions by the Jewish Museum concentrated on a much broader
spectrum than only Jewish art. Among the most successful exhibitions
in recent years were one on Sephardi Jewry and another on the Golem.
In both of them, education in Jewish culture and tradition was much
more strongly emphasised than the display of significant works of art.
A very recent trend in smaller Jewish museums across the United
States is the emphasis on American Jewish art and history. Many of
those Jewish museums are centres for the local Jewish communities to
learn about their history and provide seminars for prospective Jewish
artists in order to keep Jewish art alive.
Again, allow me a glance back to pre-Nazi Germany. Until the
last years of the nineteenth century, associations dedicated to the
collection of Jewish artefacts or Jewish museums were practically
non-existent. It was in 1895 when the first such association came into
existence in Vienna; in Germany, Jewish art associations and
collections followed in a number of cities, such as Hamburg
(1898/1900), Frankfurt am Main (1901), Kassel (1927), Breslau
(1928), and Munich (1931). Permanent contact between those
institutions was established during the Weimar years by annual
conventions of the various Jewish Museum Associations in Germany.
The most important Jewish museum was initiated in Berlin in the
1920s, although it officially opened only one week before Hitler came
to power, in January 1933. Its entrance hall was itself a programmatic
statement. Two busts of prominent German Jews, Moses Mendelssohn
and Abraham Geiger, reminded visitors of their specific German
Jewish heritage, while the four remaining works displayed the
renewed Jewish cultural activity among German Jews. They all
depicted biblical motifs through the eyes of contemporary German
Jewish artists: a sculpture of David by Arnold Zadikow, Lesser Ury’s
famous depictions of Jeremiah and Moses, and Jakob Steinhardt’s
painting of the ‘Prophet’ of 1912, which had established his fame as a
leading Expressionist artist. The emphasis on contemporary Jewish
painting and sculpture constituted a distinct contrast to the contents of
the original Berlin Jewish art collection, which consisted mainly of
antiquities, coins, old ceremonial objects, portraits, and prints.20 The
contrast was well intended by the museum’s director, Karl Schwarz,
who did not regard a Jewish museum as an end in itself, but as a
means to revitalise Jewish artistic creativity. Thus, when a museum
guide appeared at the museum’s opening, Schwarz stressed his
conviction that the aim of such a place was the depiction of Jewish art
and culture as living history.21
Needless to say, the analogies between German and American
Jewish cultures must be seen against the background of obvious
differences; the United States is a very different society from Weimar
Germany: more pluralistic, more open, and more democratic. The
Jews in Weimar Germany were practically the only religious and
ethnic minority and, unlike in America, ethnic revival was not an issue
among minorities, but among the German majority, thus obtaining a
distinctly different character. Antisemitism and exclusion, so typical
of Weimar Jews’ daily experience and the most important reason for
their turn inward, is hardly present in modern-day American society.
Finally, the numbers are important: the six million or so American
Jews constitute ten times the number of Weimar’s Jewish community.
Within the borough of Brooklyn alone, there are almost as many Jews
as in the whole of Germany in 1933. All this notwithstanding, Weimar
Germany’s Jewry was the first major Jewish community that set out to
deepen and culminate the development of a distinct Jewish subculture
in a relatively open and voluntaristic setting. Their endeavour
constituted a particular response to the challenge of expressing Jewish
distinctiveness, while at the same time participating in a modern
secular society. While the answers German Jews provided were
restricted to the particular conditions of their place and time, the
questions they asked were very similar to those posed by American
Jews two generations later.
However, the mere comparison between Jewish culture in
Weimar Germany and contemporary America still seems shocking to
most observers. Thus, Harold Bloom praised Gershom Scholem for
never having ‘made the mistake of analogizing German and American
Jewry’, and instead drew parallels to the Hellenistic world. In a
similar vein, Cynthia Ozick declared that ‘We are not like Germany;
we are a good deal like an incipient Spain’.22 What causes the
vehement resistance to such a comparison is, of course, the
unavoidable question arising from the ultimate fate of German Jewry:
‘If there are parallels in life, will there be also parallels in death?’ The
pessimistic observers of American Jewry point to high intermarriage
rates and low synagogue attendance. They claim that American Jews
feel too comfortable. While many German Jews became aware of their
Judaism in the face of growing hostility, many American Jews loosen
their ties to Judaism because of their acceptance by the mainstream
society. If it was the explosion of hostility that brutally destroyed
German and European Jewry, they ask, will it be total integration that
ultimately brings Jewish particularity in the United States to an end?
As in Germany, one part of the answer must be seen in the broader
context of the non-Jewish society. If American society continues to be
characterised by the concept of ethnic diversity rather than by that of
the melting pot, Jews may find their place within a multicultural
society, as well.
The second part of the answer is up to American Jewry itself. In
Weimar Germany, Franz Rosenzweig was in a way successful when
he spoke, half jokingly, half seriously, of ‘smuggling’ Judaism into
the general education so dear to the Jew. While this did not imply that
the younger generation of Jews in Weimar Germany had more than a
superficial knowledge of Jewish texts and the Hebrew language, it
meant that they, in contrast to their parents and grandparents who
were often ashamed of their remnants of traditional Judaism, now felt
rather ashamed of knowing so little. It remains to be seen if the
somewhat similar process of re-appropriation and reinvention of
Jewish knowledge and traditions in the American Jewish society
marks only a temporary curiosity with respect to their cultural heritage
or a first step towards a more profound immersion within Jewish
culture. While the fifteen years of Weimar Germany were too brief a
period to permit any definite evaluation of the Jewish culture that
developed during that time, American Jews have the unique chance to
prove that Jews can survive as Jews even in a sympathetic and
comfortable environment, and therefore ultimately disclaim Jean-Paul
Sartre’s famous assertion that it is antisemitism which enables the
survival of the Jews as Jews.
. Harold Bloom, ‘The Pragmatics of Contemporary Jewish Culture’, in Post-Analytic Philosophy, ed. John
Rajchman and Cornel West (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 108.
. Thomas Mann to Heinrich Mann, 27 February 1904, in Briefwechsel, 1900–1949 (Frankfurt am Main: S.
Fischer, 1968), p. 27. For more details on the Weimar developments described here, see my book The
Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
. Hannah Arendt, ‘Creating a Cultural Atmosphere’, in The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in
the Modern Age (New York: Grove Press, 1978), p. 92.
. Harold Bloom, ‘Free and Broken Tablets: The Cultural Prospects of American Jewry’, in Agon:
Towards a Theory of Revision (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 322.
. Leonard Fein, Where Are We? The Inner Life of America’s Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p.
. Rosalie Perles, ‘Unsere Großväter’, Jahrbuch für Jüdische Geschichte und Literatur 22 (1919), pp. 129–
. Fein, Where Are We?, p. 20.
. Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1992), p. 200.
. Helmuth Plessner, Die Grenzen der Gemeinschaft: Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus (Bonn:
Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, reprint 1972), p. 26.
. Eugen Fuchs, ‘Referat über die Stellung des Centralvereins zum Zionismus in der DelegiertenVersammlung vom 30. März 1913’, in Um Deutschtum und Judentum (Frankfurt am Main: Kauffmann,
1919), p. 242.
. Ludwig Holländer, Deutsch-jüdische Probleme der Gegenwart: Eine Auseinandersetzung über die
Grundfragen des Central-Vereins deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens E. V. (Berlin: Philo-Verlag,
1929), p. 14.
. Bernard Reisman, The Chavurah: A Contemporary Jewish Experience (New York: Union of American
Hebrew Congregations, 1977), p. 9.
. Michael A. Meyer, ‘Gemeinschaft within Gemeinde: Religious Ferment in Weimar Liberal Judaism’, in
In Search of Jewish Community: Jewish Identities in Germany and Austria, 1918-1933, ed. Michael
Brenner and Derek Penslar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 25–30.
. Robert Alter, ‘The Jew Who Didn’t Get Away: On the Possibility of an American Jewish Culture’, in
The American Jewish Experience, ed. Jonathan D. Sarna (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986), p. 279
(originally in Judaism 31, 1982).
. Shapiro, A Time for Healing, p. 86.
. Sylvia Barack Fishman, ‘American Jewish Fiction Turns Inward, 1960–1990’, American Jewish
Yearbook 91 (1991), pp. 35–69.
. Cynthia Ozick, ‘Toward a New Yiddish’, in Art & Ardor (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 174.
. Davar (Musaf le-shabatot ve-lemo’adim), 12 Adar (= 8 March) 1925, p. 21.
. Ruth R. Seldin, ‘American Jewish Museums: Trends and Issues’, American Jewish Yearbook 91 (1991),
p. 86.
. Hermann Simon, Das Berliner Jüdische Museum in der Oranienburger Straße: Geschichte einer
zerstörten Kultstätte (Berlin: Union, 1988), p. 11.
. Karl Schwarz, ‘Berliner Jüdisches Museum (Aus den Memoiren von Karl Schwarz)’, Robert Weltsch
Col., Archives of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York AR 7185, Box 10, Folder 15, p. 10.
. Bloom, ‘Free and Broken Tablets’, p. 325; Ozick, ‘Toward a New Yiddish’, p. 172.